Why persistence doesn't always pay

Persistence pays, the saying goes. But does it? It rather depends on how you do it.

by Alastair Dryburgh
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Take these two fundamentally different parables of persistence.

First, the struggling author who writes a book that is rejected 140 times before finally being accepted by a publisher and achieving great success. Second, Thomas Edison, who went through several thousand attempts before finding a workable way to make electric light.

Edison's approach was scientific - if an experiment showed an idea didn't work, he tried a different one. After several thousand experiments, he found one that did. The author's approach was more magical - just keep doing the same thing, try harder, suffer more disappointment, and one day ...

Edison showed creativity, whereas the author was repetitive. Edison valued feedback, learning from each 'failed' experiment. The author made a virtue of ignoring feedback.

The scientific approach values thought, ingenuity and creativity along with persistence. The magical approach almost seems to value persistence and effort as an alternative to any of those other things. Edison is thinking: every time I try something that doesn't work, I learn something that might give a clue to what will work. The author is thinking: every time I get knocked back, every time one of my friends tells me I'm crazy ... I acquire merit. And if I acquire enough merit I will prevail. It's the great mythological and religious theme of redemption through suffering, but it has been perverted. Mythological heroes don't just suffer, or keep doing the same thing again and again. Odysseus, to make it home to Ithaca, doesn't just need courage and endurance. He benefits from magical help but also needs all his great ingenuity, cunning and creativity.

Given the power of the myths it evokes, it's not surprising how this twisted idea of the value of persistence takes root. Let me finish with some prosaic advice: if you are struggling to fit a square peg into a round hole, stop! Take some time to make a round peg, or go and find a square hole.

Alastair Dryburgh is chief contrarian at Akenhurst Consultants and author of Everything You Know About Business is Wrong (Headline, £13.99). More at www.alastairdryburgh.com.

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